The Genesis of Solidarity: The Trinity of Wałęsa, the Workers, and the Church

Lech Wałęsa’s autobiography, A Way of Hope,offers a unique first-person perspective from one who has shaped the history of modern Poland. It traces the emergence of a moral dimension and authority by Wałęsa, and explains the distinctive structure, principles, and success of Solidarity. As the titular “Genesis” might suggest, Solidarity is seen here through a distinctively Christian lens. The Catholic Church offered an inclusive and universal structure based on morality and solidarity, one that Wałęsa was quick to associate with and could use to reconcile the workers’ divisions and surmount the state’s authoritarianism. Catholicism had the powerful benefits of an omnipresence and omnibenevolence, of an alluring virtue in both past and future. There is then, an amorphous and indistinguishable trinity between Wałęsa, the workers, and the Church that explains the particular genesis of Solidarity as it arose.

In his prelude, Wałęsa gives immediate primacy to the importance of religion, seeing his understanding of “the meaning of the word faith” as integral to his personal philosophy, Solidarity’s ideology, and the Polish historical tradition.[1] A constant undercurrent of Catholicism is present throughout A Way of Hope, one that animates Wałęsa and binds him to Poland. That is precisely the point of the first chapter, titled “Roots,” where Wałęsa weaves his own family’s history and religion against Poland’s, staking his identity as that of the everyman Polish Catholic. Indeed, Roman Laba aptly notes that the public portrayal of Wałęsa has two symbolic sides: as an Everyman and as a Christian.[2] He is effectively making himself a symbol of the current generation in a long line of Catholic tradition, “my faith can be said almost to have flowed into me with my mother’s milk.”[3]
This sets the stage for the 1970s, which is characterized as “a time of defeat and failure, on every level: social, professional, and moral.”[4] The Gdansk shipyard is used as a case study and synecdoche of larger Poland. Wałęsa notes the “hierarchy of castes” based on social class in the urban shipyard, compared particularly against his previous community, where “there were bonds of solidarity among the workmen. At the yard, things were radically different: there, each one of us was just a tiny cog in a vast machine.”[5] It is in this context of alienation that Wałęsa portrays himself as the manifestation of the greater collective will, the salvation of the workers by rallying them together. The Church is portrayed as having a similar unifying role, able to link the workers to the rest of the nation in “a prayer for the country.”[6] Wałęsa gives the Church an esteemed position, “From the beginning of the December tragedy, the Polish church had been doing all it could to support the workers.”[7] Crucially, Wałęsa’s efforts are not simply limited to his own shipyard, but rather to all. “SOLIDARITY was born at that precise moment when the shipyard strike evolved from a local success in the shipyard, to a strike in support of other factories and business enterprises, large and small.”[8]
As Wałęsa emphasizes again and again, his ideology is non-ideology. “No ideology was advanced, no economic or institutional theory: we were simply seeking human dignity… we saw nothing revolutionary in what happened.”[9] This new moral dimension was powerfully reflected in the Church. “The invocation of a moral order was the most revolutionary response that could be made to the increasingly dogmatic socialism practiced in Poland, and people were caught up in this wave of moral reawakening.”[10] Indeed, from a 1976 Church letter, Wałęsa emphasizes the universality of the episcopal language for the Poles: “the government’s program of action must take into account the best traditions of our national culture.”[11] Of particular importance is Wałęsa’s note that KOR’s initial problem of reconciling its intellectual and worker aims was to adopt a similar vocabulary.[12] Crucially, this moral rhetoric of the Church and KOR is then placed in juxtaposition against the meaningless slogans of the Party—this rediscovery of the old moral traditions of Poland offers an escape from the Communist structure. In fact, Wałęsa directly attributes to Primate Wyzynski Solidarity’s orientation of solidarity, justice, and peace.[13] The Twenty-One Demands that culminated from the 1970 protests saw an addendum that “the Catholic mass be transmitted on radio stations.”[14] This was the triumvirate of solidarity as led by Wałęsa: the workers, religion, and the freedom of expression. Indeed, both government and workers were cognizant of the Church’s unifying support, and both sought to appropriate Catholicism for their own ends: with the Government taking Wyszinski’s sermon out of context to muster support for themselves, and the Twenty-One Demands committee proposing the addendum without consulting the Church first.[15]
Wałęsa explicitly sees 1976 as “a turning point on the road to change in Gdansk and elsewhere” precisely because of this new journey to a moral freedom, particularly in the context of the Helsinki Accords and against the authoritarian state.[16] Timothy Garton Ash’s attributes the turning point of Communism in Eastern Europe to the Pope’s visit in June 1979 for precisely the same moral reasons. Garton Ash sees Solidarity’s foundation in 1980 as pioneering a new kind of politics in Eastern Europe, “a politics of social self-organization and negotiating the transition from communism.”[17] As mentioned, the Church and Solidarity provided a kind of extra-political arena. Wałęsa elucidates his fears of “being drawn into the quicksands of political polemic. Solidarity’s strength lay in surmounting the political divisions.”[18] Laba examines August 1980 through the political significance of its religious symbols, seeing the sacred politics as allowing for the unification of the national and social historical revolutionary strands—although, as has been shown, this unification has long been under process.[19] While Solidarity could easily have been monolithic, it was instead supremely democratic. As Garton Ash says, “For the first time, we saw that massive, sustained, yet supremely peaceful and self-disciplined manifestation of social unity, the gentle crowd against the Party-state.”[20] January 1981 saw the ultimate endorsement of the church, in the form of Wałęsa’s visit to the Vatican and Pope John Paul II’s Laborem exercens (On Human Labor). Wałęsa portrays himself as a visiting pilgrim and statesman, at once a humble individual and a greater emblem of Polish workers and Catholics: “I was coming to bear witness to our movement before the whole world.”[21]
Wałęsa’s consecration of the emblem of the Solidarnosc flag in 1982 blurs the national and the religious in the final step. Interestingly for an autobiography, Wałęsa uses an extract from Jan Mur’s Journal of a Prisoner to describe the events on November 21st.[22] By offering another perspective, Wałęsa is able to cast himself in a more objective and historical light. Mur paints a reverent and sacred picture of a gathering, a “celebration of a kind both patriotic and religious.”[23] The consecreation scene has Solidarity appear as the new religion of Poland, with Wałęsa as its high priest. As Laba so precisely notes, “The pope and Wałęsa are on the same plane… the revival of Polish messianism in this proletarian form”[24] Laba dubs this a “worker messianism,” where the Polish national insurrectionary tradition is merged with the proletarian social revolution tradition. And all this stems from the initial moral impetus as borrowed from the Church and advanced by Wałęsa: “No other characteristic shows as clearly the movement’s moral renewal, concerned in an almost solipsistic way with upholding its moral integrity.”[25]
With Popieluszko’s murder in 1984, Wałęsa becomes even more so the primary preacher to the Polish workers: “it was the first time I had stood up to speak in the parish church of the Gdansk shipyard.”[26] The very final scene of A Way of Hope has Wałęsa at Popielzsuko’s funeral: “at the foot of the grave that was to shelter his body, I felt the crowd swell with confidence; I felt their faith in moral values strengthen, their faith in the necessity of realizing these values in society.”[27] This is the titular way of hope. Against all adversity, the trinity of Wałęsa, the workers, and the Church continue to aspire for a better and unified tomorrow, one based upon morality and faith.Whether such a strategy would pay off in the long-run is another question. Indeed, Voytek Zubek criticizes the continued emphasis on religious myth-making in the post-1989 transition period, seeing it as a deliberate obfuscation of the transition period, resulting in a “decline from exalted leader to untrustworthy politician” by Wałęsa.[28] Whether such post-communist claims have merit falls outside the scope of Wałęsa’s autobiography. A Way of Hope compellingly advances the importance of the Genesis of Solidarity in the exodus of Communism.
Works Cited
Garton Ash, Timothy. “The Year of Truth.” In The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague. New York: Vintage, 1999. 131-156.
Laba, Roman. The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland’s Working-Class Democratization. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Wałęsa, Lech. A Way of Hope. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.
Zubek, Voytek. “The Eclipse of Wałęsa’s Political Career.” Europe-Asia Studies 49, no. 1 (January 1997): 107-124. JSTOR (152969).
[1] Lech Wałęsa, A Way of Hope (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987), 1.
[2] Roman Laba, The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland’s Working-Class Democratization (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), 140-144.
[3] Wałęsa, A Way of Hope, 29.
[4] Ibid., 85.
[5] Ibid., 50.
[6] Ibid., 75.
[7] Ibid., 75.
[8] Ibid., 123.
[9] Ibid., 2.
[10] Wałęsa, A Way of Hope, 96.
[11] Ibid., 95.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 144-145.
[14] Ibid., 130.
[15] Ibid., 136-137.
[16] Ibid., 97-98.
[17] Timothy Garton Ash, “The Year of Truth” in The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (New York: Vintage, 1999), 134.
[18] Wałęsa, A Way of Hope, 151.
[19] Laba, The Roots of Solidarity, 126-128
[20] Garton Ash, The Year of Truth, 133.
[21] Wałęsa, The Way of Hope, 164.
[22] Ibid., 249-251.
[23] Wałęsa, The Way of Hope, 250.
[24] Laba, The Roots of Solidarity, 141-142.
[25] Ibid., 144.
[26] Wałęsa, The Way of Hope, 302.
[27] Ibid., 307.
[28] Voytek Zubek, “The Ecilpse of Wałęsa’s Political Career,” Europe-Asia Studies 49, no. 1 (January 1997): 107-109. JSTOR (152969).

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